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Sound and vision: How San Antonio is building inclusivity in arts and culture

Nicholas Frank

Dec 20, 2023

Sound and vision: How San Antonio is building inclusivity in arts and culture

Anyone seeing the Classical Music Institute’s presentation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons the morning of Nov. 1 might have thought they were at one of the ensemble’s rehearsals.

The atmosphere was casual, audience members chatted, snacked and sipped from sippy cups, napped under blankets, played with phones and tablets, got up and walked the hallways of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, fidgeted with toys, leaned in to listen to concertmaster Francisco Fullana’s comments on what to listen for in upcoming musical passages and otherwise came and went as they pleased.

The public event was not a rehearsal, but the latest Valero Sensory Friendly Program performance geared toward audiences sensitive to the loud noises, bright lights, large crowds and extended sitting times typical of conventional performances.

The keys to the series are inclusion and accessibility, said Kimberly Stephenson, the Tobin Center’s director of education.

“It’s just a very open and welcoming environment,” Stephenson said. “We are wanting to expose everyone to the beauty and the power of the arts.”

For anyone

Sensory-friendly events are primarily designed to accommodate those with autism spectrum disorder who might have difficulties adjusting behaviors to social situations or communicating their needs effectively.

Valero series accommodations include limiting the audience to half the standard size, keeping house lights on throughout the performance — which is limited to a one-hour duration — and encouraging patrons to talk or vocalize and move around freely.

Noise levels are kept consistent so as not to startle or overwhelm with sound. For the Classical Music Institute sensory-friendly performance, Fullana frequently turned to the audience and spoke about the music they were about to hear, saying they should listen for birdsong-like passages played by the violin section and imagine a festive garden party signaled by Vivaldi’s famous melody.

Jacqueline Ha brought her 2-year-old son Tiago to the performance in part because “he has a very keen ear for music.” The Tobin Center welcomes anyone to these free public events, and Ha and her partner recognize that though Tiago has not been diagnosed as on the autism spectrum, he has a short attention span and displays sensitivity to bustling crowds and loud sounds. 

The Four Seasons concert was the second Tobin Center sensory-friendly event they’ve attended, and Ha said they appreciate the accommodating environment. “Just the fact that we have exposure to performances at the Tobin is something that we’re really grateful for, as far as learning what parameters are conducive to him as a little being exploring himself,” she said.

An invisible disability

Other arts and culture organizations in San Antonio have offered sensory-friendly accommodations and specially designed events with similar modifications, in the name of inclusivity for audiences of all abilities. 

The San Antonio Zoo held a sensory-friendly version of its annual holiday Zoo Lights extravaganza on Nov. 20. What is normally billed as “miles of dazzling lights, festive music, and whimsical displays” was dialed down, tailored for those with sensory sensitivities.

Music volume was muted by 80%, laser strobe lights were removed, other bright lights were dimmed and more sensory-friendly implement bags were made available. As with other institutions, the bags are available for free during visits at the information desk.

Alex Rodriguez, the Zoo’s manager of diversity, equity and inclusion, described sensory sensitivity as “an invisible disability” that is more common than generally realized. 

She said thatwhen sensitivities beyond the autism spectrum are taken into account, including military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, individuals with dementia and even neurotypical adults who can become overwhelmed in overstimulating environments, “every community you are in, every family or social dynamic that you’re in, chances are somebody in that group has this [condition]” in one form or another.

Everyone means everyone

The Valero series at the Tobin defines its mission as “equitable services for the creative arts to promote justice, inclusion, and empowerment for all.”

In a similar spirit, The Public Theater of San Antonio took Tiny Tim literally when the character intones “God Bless us, everyone” at the end of the Charles Dickens holiday classic A Christmas Carol.

The theater company’s version of the play that ran Dec. 1-17 integrated deaf and hard-of-hearing actors, with a script adapted to shift between moments of speaking and moments communicated only through American Sign Language (ASL). The reworked script by Tim Hedgepeth and Anthony Ciaravino features a Scrooge, played by hearing actor John O’Neill, who learned sign language as a youth in love with a deaf woman and is moved to draw on his past to communicate with Tiny Tim, played by deaf actor Josiah Sammy Esqueda.

The staging of the play aims to be as inclusive as possible and might help lend insight to hearing audiences into how deaf people communicate. “This production includes spoken word, moments of ASL, and supertitles,” said producing artistic director Jimmy Moore. “So we are communicating at any one point in two to three different ways.”

The Public Theater has provided ASL nights since December 2015, said Robert Cardoza, founder of the Stage Hands sign language services company and assistant director of the production.

But staging a play with a fully integrated deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing cast is new, Moore said. Deaf actors, such as Missy Smith in the dual roles of Belle and Mrs. Fred, react to light cues rather than sound cues and interpret between sign language words and spoken words, which in some cases differ slightly. For example, she’ll sign “I finally accept you” while speaking “I at long last embrace you.” 

Moore said the play is just the beginning of such inclusive performances. “It is a really great first step for the Public to learn what it means to be more accessible to the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities in San Antonio.”

Growing awareness

While a 2016 Kronkosky Charitable Foundation report found San Antonio to be “an exceptional hub for autism services,” with a wide range of professionals who provide autism care, the report concluded that demand for services far outstrips supply. 

But Patty Vela, chief development and outreach officer of the nonprofit Autism Community Network, said accommodations such as sensory-friendly events are on the rise. Experts at the nonprofit including occupational therapist Adrienne Gaither have helped such local organizations as Morgan’s Wonderland and Methodist Hospital establish programs to welcome individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities.

The Tobin Center’s sensory-friendly performances date back to the very start of its programming, Stephenson said, shaped in part by the help of the Autism Theater Initiative in New York and Kulture City, a nationwide organization that provides sensory-inclusive certification to venues interested in accommodating people with sensory needs. 

The DoSeum children’s museum researched Kulture City initiatives for its new Beyond Limits program, said program educator Shauna Brookins. Sensory-friendly Beyond Limits events take place after regular hours to limit crowds, with lighting dimmed and sound volumes lowered. Brookins plans four such events per year, with the next taking place Wednesday evening with a Winter Wonderland theme.

The museum also provides sensory-friendly accommodations every day, Brookins said, with sensory backpacks that include headphones, sunglasses, fidget toys and a museum map that locates quiet zones including the Calm Corner, an enclosed, sound-dampened retreat room.

Both Brookins and Vela encouraged parents to observe their children to detect areas of sensitivity, whether they shy away from loud sounds or avoid particular stimuli, or, as Ha said of her son, may simply need to get up frequently to walk around and burn off excess energy. 

“We’re first-time parents, we’re trying to learn how to meet him with where he’s at,” Ha said.

And Rodriguez said she’s heartened by the growing awareness that many, if not most people, have some form of sensory sensitivity and that institutions are responding. She has auditory sensory sensitivities and visual impairments that make her sensitive to light, she said, and sometimes needs to walk away from stimuli to recuperate.

“So for someone like me … coming into spaces like the [sensory-friendly] Zoo Lights [display] where the lights weren’t so overwhelming for me, it was much easier for me to enjoy that environment,” Rodriguez said.

The next Tobin Center sensory-friendly performance is Pilobolus Is a Fungus, March 19 at noon.

See the whole article with pictures here.

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